Bristol County Sheriff’s Office has 1st K9 COVID detection teams in nation

DARTMOUTH, Mass. — Can canines detect COVID in the air? You bet they can.

And the Bristol County Sheriff’s office now has canines that are the first in the nation to be trained to detect COVID-19.

Canines use their noses to keep the public safe. The trained four-legged officers can detect heroin, fentanyl and other dangerous drugs; firearms, ammunition and explosives; and even people who are missing or in distress. Now, they can add detecting COVID to that list.

“Bristol County and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have come so far since the pandemic started last year,” Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said in a statement. “Today, festivals are happening, restaurants are full and concert venues are packed. We’ve made so much progress, and our new COVID-19 detection program is one way the people of Bristol County can stay ahead of the curve.”

Similar to drugs and weapons, COVID-19 has a unique odor which two BCSO dogs are trained to detect. The program was developed by Florida International University’s International Forensic Research Institute, which used a similar program for dogs detecting fungus in crops and adapted it to COVID detection. FIU currently uses canines for COVID detection on its Florida campus.

“This is all science,” BCSO Capt. Paul Douglas said during a small canine graduation ceremony on Wednesday. “This program was developed by professors, doctors and scientists at FIU, and we couldn’t be more proud or excited to execute it here in Bristol County.”

Two BCSO canine teams are trained in COVID detection: Capt. Douglas and his partner Huntah, and Officer Theodore Santos and his partner Duke. Huntah (think Hunter with a Boston accent) is a 9-month-old female black lab and Duke is a 9-month-old male golden lab/retriever mix. They are stepsiblings, born two weeks apart with the same father and different mothers.

FIU officials provided medical masks worn by COVID-positive patients for the training odors. An ultraviolet system was used on the masks that kills the contagious portion but leaves the COVID odor, making is safe for the canines and officers to use as training tools. The Sheriff’s Office is working with the New Bedford Fire Department and local EMS providers on acquiring masks worn by local COVID patients for future training aids.

BCSO Lt. Kenneth Almeida and Sgt. William Dillingham led the training program the past few months for Capt. Douglas and Officer Santos. In the months ahead, Huntah and Duke will also be trained in locating missing people.

The COVID detection program, in which the dogs can also detect the advanced variants such as the Delta variant, is not a substitute for a COVID test.

“It’s best to think of it as a decontamination tool,” Capt. Douglas said. “The dogs can detect the COVID odor on a counter or table if it was recently touched by a COVID-positive individual, or even detect the odor on a tissue used by someone with COVID.”

Sheriff Hodgson and Capt. Douglas would like to thank Dr. David and Mrs. Jane Askew from Dartmouth Dental for the generous donation to purchase Huntah and Duke, and Kathy Costa of Katz Pet Supply in Somerset, who donates the dog food for Huntah, Duke and the other canines from the BCSO, Fall River Police Department and Somerset Police Department.

The BCSO COVID canines are available to schools, town buildings, non-profits, nursing homes, Councils on Aging, public safety facilities, medical facilities and more across Bristol County.

Anyone interested can send a request letter to Sheriff Hodgson, 400 Faunce Corner Road, Dartmouth, MA 02747.

Public safety organizations seeking an urgent COVID sweep can contact Capt. Douglas (pauldouglas@bcso-ma.org) and Supt. Steven Souza (stevensouza@bcso-ma.org).

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